Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Unsurprisingly, this book is not for children.

I know I ought to be getting some dissertation work done this afternoon, but I'm having trouble identifying my next steps, so I'm going to tell you about The Children's Book instead. Responsibility!

The first thing one might notice about The Children's Book is that it's huge, and this is not an illusion. My edition is 879 pages long, and the margins and the text are all normal sized. By my rough count, there are about 14 main-character children and nearly as many main-character adults. It sounds crazy to have 25-30 main characters, but that is just the kind of book this is.

"Cast of thousands," as they say
I really enjoyed the book, don't get me wrong, but I would say that anyone less than A.S. Byatt submitting this manuscript would have been told to cut it down, for goodness' sake, don't you know people don't have attention spans anymore? I laughed when I realized (through the acknowledgments) that Byatt dedicated the book to her editor. I think if someone wanted to cut this book down they could find inessential passages to cut -- I skimmed over the historical-context passages in particular -- but at the same time everything that's there makes for good reading.

The book is basically about a group of children and how they grow up; most of them are members of Fabian/aesthetic movement/Arts-and-crafts-type households, but some come from more humble or more "establishment" backgrounds. You see how the children are affected by their parents' and their parents' associates' ideas, actions, and sins. There are secrets and scandals, but they don't dominate the core of the book. The characters are really well-written, and diverse without seeming forced. The only slightly false notes were the two working-class children, Phillip and Elsie; Byatt was a little more solemn with these two, I think, and they come across as a bit more flat. Maybe a little too noble.

It seems very high school lit class to be all, "What is this book about" but I couldn't help but ask myself, what is this book about, anyway? (Don't worry, I will not attempt to discuss Symbolism.) The most immediate thing that leaps out at me is that Byatt is showing how flawed the progressive/permissive movements the characters are part of were. Whether the children embrace or reject or ignore their parents' ideologies doesn't seem to affect their lives much. The world rolls on and goes up in flames in the Great War regardless. The adults have big ideas and bold, radical new ways of seeing the world, but in the end their actions end up being narcissistic. If this were high school I'd say that they fail, on the whole, to be truly radical because they fail to really love the children and put them first.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book: it's heaven for those of us who just like to see how things turn out for people. I got some of the characters confused now and then because I can never remember names, but for the most part -- and I credit this to Byatt -- I kept them straight. "Good writing" is a very difficult thing to define or describe, but this book is full of it, and is a very worthwhile read.


  1. Great review, Jam! I read this shortly after it was published in the U.S. (a couple of years ago?), and loved it! But then I truly do love anything Byatt has written. This is a terribly simplistic comparison, but somehow I felt like this was Byatt's "War and Peace"--i.e., a big, massive story with a Tolstoyan scope and cast of characters. Plus, the extensive exposure to the "arts and crafts movement" was fabulous. I really learned a lot from this novel. Byatt ever the didact, eh? Cheers! Chris

  2. Hurray for things being full of good writing!

    I might move this up my ToBeRead list now. Mebbe.


  3. I have to admit that I have only read Possession and I didn't enjoy it at all. I purchased this when it came out because of the good reviews but I have been too scared to read it since.

  4. I actually have this one on my shelf and have to admit I only bought it because I thought the cover was really pretty :) But sounds like it could be a really good read.